Watch Your Language! The Language of Medication Adherence and Compliance, that is

As a specialty pharmacy professional, not a day goes by that you don’t use or hear the words “compliance” or “adherence.” After all, the whole point of a physician prescribing a treatment regimen is for the patient to stick to the plan, right? Part of the role of every specialty pharmacy is to help patients stay on therapy, because it’s an important step to patients’ well being.

While these terms might be necessary industry benchmarks, it’s important for clinicians to separate this business jargon from how they speak with their patients – because effective healthcare communications start with speaking your audiences’ language.

“Hate” Is a Strong Word

Did you know that there is a rather substantial number of patients who hate the words adherence and compliance? We’re not talking a simple dislike. We’re talking deep-rooted feelings of disrespect, misunderstanding, and contention with clinicians. With a short survey and listening ear, we quickly hear the rumblings from patients and their true feelings about the language that has been so deeply rooted in our dialog for decades.

Effective Healthcare Communications

Tweets Don’t Lie

Take a look at some Tweets from an e-patient Twitter chat for health communication, health literacy, and social science (#hchlitss) that discussed these terms:

  • @twirlandswirl: “Hate hate hate the word ‘adherence.’ Makes [patients] who cannot follow instructions to the letter seem like unruly children.”
  • @melissarvh: “’Adherence’ and ‘compliance’ both seem like orders – like the patient is too uninvolved in the decisions.”
  • @JMcelio: “Every patient wants to be well. When we use words like ‘compliance,’ it implies HCPs and patients somehow have different agendas.”

Wow! All this time we were trying to come alongside the patient as someone who listened and cared, but instead, we’ve been alienating a large portion of the very people we were trying to help. Who knew?!

The Status Quo is a Dead End

Wouldn’t it be great if the world stopped changing, or it changed so slowly we could ignore it? While “doing what has always worked” may take a specialty pharmacy a few more miles down the road, evolution is an unavoidable fact. Gearing up for change is part of surviving this business. To adapt, we have to do a lot more listening to the patients’ perspectives and a lot less searching for those useless 95% patient satisfaction scores that don’t mean diddly squat—except help us to mistakenly feel better about ourselves.

Collecting patient feedback is not about validating how great we’re doing. It’s an opportunity for us to build connections with real people, gain a deeper understanding of what customers like and don’t like (those hated words: adherence and compliance), and most importantly, weave those insights back into the business.

We need to watch our language. We must listen to what patients are saying and adjust what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. We need to navigate our conversations, goals, and processes accordingly. Digital communication is an incredibly valuable way to break down barriers that the healthcare industry has steadily faced for decades.

What types of feedback have you gotten from patients about the way you communicate? Are you prepared to let go of “medication adherence” and “medication compliance” language?

To learn more about what patients have to say about medication adherence and compliance language, read Kathleen’s original post here on Medivizor.

Interested in changing your language to better resonate with your patients and position your brand as someone who listens and adapts? If so, contact